What can literature do that other art forms can’t? This is a great question to ask readers and writers. I recently overheard it and I couldn’t help but write a response. I’ve got three key distinctions or answers; I’m sure there are more.
Firstly, literature does a lot with a lot less. A film takes collaborators, financiers, and more. Literature can be made anywhere by anyone. Well, anyone with an idea. Oh, and they’ll need a voice too. Painting, for instance, takes expensive supplies and a natural talent. Writing can be learned, I think, by reading. I’m not positing that you can be taught to be Hemingway, but I am positing that it’s a hell of a lot easier than becoming Michelangelo.
All writing needs to flourish is a pen and an idea — all other art needs much more to achieve and instill similar feelings.
Secondly, writing is the rawest expression of thought. There are no mediators. There are no intermediaries. With a film, what you’re seeing is not exactly what the director has envisioned. Woody Allen talks about this. He says he is rarely satisfied with one of his films.
I think the closest thing we have to the conduit of real, raw expression perfectly translated into film is the auteur Wes Anderson. Thank God he was born in modern times, or else that may not be so true. His modernity allows him to bring antiquated elements into a beautiful future of aesthetics. He has the entirety of history behind him, and he pulls and plucks from it at will. He brings these elements into a gorgeous horizon, a distance of future. Even he, however, suffers from mediators. He needs financing, writers, set designers, etc. that I am sure muck up the idyll he had in his head (to some small degree). It has to be this way, though. Otherwise, if he did it all himself and meticulously recreated the visions in his mind, his films would take 22 years to make…each.
With a painting, for another example, the imagery may not have ended up exactly as the artist intended: mistakes with the brush, idealized colors being impossible to translate into reality, drying of the paint, etc. The painting changes as it’s made. The idea changes as it’s translated. However, with literature, you’re getting access to the author’s mind in real time. The actuality of their reason and their art realized as it happens. The author’s only real struggle is making sure he or she has a pen handy as those little birds (ideas) land. I know better than anyone that if they’re allowed to fly away again, they’re gone forever. It almost happened to me just now. I have gotten up at 5AM to write an idea down in the dark. I’ve embarrassingly texted them to people so that I could see them again later. I trap the little birds, even the ones that come to me at night. I believe it was the delightful comedian Mitch Hedberg who said that he has to convince himself a joke just isn’t that funny if his pen and paper are across the room.
This leads me to my third and final argument: the distinct pregnancy of literature that other art forms may not have. Literature inspires, it begets more literature when read well. When a kid sees a film, he or she may say, “This is wonderful. I want to make these myself one day.” But as the kid grows older, the realization that he or she may not have the luck, the means, the collaborators, or the funds to turn visions into reality hits home hard. He or she is without the proper conduit. As I mentioned earlier, film requires oh so much. Even the smallest indie films need millions to get off the ground and get made — and even more to get seen! It is the same for music. You need other musicians, producers, studio time, money, and marketing to get even the most obscure record made. Yes, there are Soundcloud records that turn out well and solo basement projects that turn heads, but none of them have the staying power or marketing that a studio record has. The most popular records had collaborators. The artist’s vision was obscured by reality. It’s just not the same with writing.
I am not arguing that writing is better than other art. Rather, it merely takes less to get off the ground. It is the hawk while other art forms may be an airplane.
Not every painter has the Sistine Chapel. Just as well, for a director to make two films, his first needs to be of some quality. However, every writer writes regardless of success. Take me for example. I am not getting paid to do this. I don’t even really have the time I need to do it well. I do it anyway. Writers even write drunk. They write poor. They write asleep. They don’t stop — even without applause.
All it takes is reading. Reading good literature impregnates the best in us with new ideas. And while film and painting and other art forms may impregnate as well — much of those are stillborn because the hospital fees are too steep. The gates are too tall. Writing has no gate. Literature no walls.